Hanging out with Lutherans

by Phil Johnson

I’m pleased to report that I spent part of Saturday, June 23, 2012, at the Augustana Heritage Association’s “Gathering VIII” at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota. The Augustana Synod was formed by Swedish immigrants in 1860.

I had a good attitude driving to the meeting and still do. It didn’t matter that I was an outsider. Not that I couldn’t have blended in – I am a Swede and I had this in common with most people present. And, I had a gold Augustana College cap in the car just in case I had reason to pull it out.

I loved the themes and feeling of this gathering, brief though my time there was. Three outstanding matters: first, the high degree of international interest and experience of many Lutherans made evident in how well informed and connected the people I met are about such things; second, a clear commitment to continue to do something constructive and loving with regard to social concerns and the state of the world; and third, their delight in and praise of generosity.

My personal hosts, to whom I am honored to be an uncle, Mary and the Rev. Darrel Peterson of Atlanta, Georgia, made way for me everywhere letting people know as necessary that I was Covenant. I was not rebuffed nor an object of condescension as far as I could tell. There is a much more irenic spirit between the Covenant and Augustana than there was nearer the time of origins (the Covenant was formed as a result of an exodus of former Augustana members in the 1870s and 80s).

The Augustana Lutheran gathering at Gustavus was billed as the final meeting of the Augustana Heritage Association. Yet, the attendance was strong. I was told that the food was very good, and I can testify that the Smörgåsbord on Saturday evening was splendid. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, unlike most colleges and institutions, Gustavus still does its own cooking.

Perhaps some people in the heart and soul of Augustana during the growth years saw ahead to the passing of the body, as it merged with other Lutheran churches in 1962 (now part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Maybe Augustana’s ecumenical-minded leaders like Conrad Bergandoff (1895-1997), President of Augustana College and Seminary (1935-1962), foresaw the changes ahead and even worked for them. (Keep your eyes open for The Biography of Conrad Bergandoff by Pietisten contributor Dr. Tom Tredway, which will soon be available, likely next year.)

I learned that about 20 percent of Swedish immigrants were affiliated with Augustana. In 1962, Augustana, with 423,673 communicants, merged with the United Lutheran Church in America (mainly ethnic German congregations), American Evangelical Lutheran Church (the “Happy” Danes), and the Suomi Synod (Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church) to form the Lutheran Church in America (LCA). In 1988, the Lutheran Church in America merged with the American Lutheran Church (ALC) and The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches to form the current, 4.8-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

In recent years considerable attention has been given to historical developments and tracing the variety of church life of the Swedish immigrants. Some became Swedish Mission Friends (Covenant founded in 1885) and more became the Augustana Lutheran Church. In one of the Gathering’s sessions, Drs. Dag Blanck (Augustana, Rock Island), Phil Anderson (North Park Seminary), and Tom Tredway, (President Emeritus of Augustana College in absentia) addressed the story of these two Swedish groups sociologically, theologically, and historically. Acrimony that once existed between these groups has dissipated to the point that both now tend to think of one another as part of the same family.

I’m surprised that the passing of Augustana happened in my lifetime because it seemed so solid to me in my youth. I suspect many folks who were part of the Augustana Heritage Association Gathering feel the same. Even when taken all together, we Swedish immigrant Christians are barely visible in the stream of church history.

Another recent instance of hanging out with Lutherans came in June when Glen Wiberg and I arranged to make a pastoral call on two Lutherans at Augustana Home in Minneapolis. Glen knew of Pastor William Berg from a previous visit and wanted to visit him and I wanted to visit Evangeline Peterson, former librarian, and Latin and English teacher at Minnehaha Academy.

We were treated to a visit with Pastor Berg in his apartment. He is 102 years old and has a thankful heart full of the love of Jesus. He preached the final Lutheran sermon at Augustana Lutheran Church on Seventh Street in Minneapolis. The once great church has now been sold to Hope Community Church, who, according to Pastor Berg, will be better able to minister to the community and draw people in. He is very pleased. He thanked the Lord and prayed blessings on Hope Church.

Pastor Berg prayed for us, the church, and the furtherance of the Gospel. He told us that he was scheduled to give the benediction at the closing service of the Augustana Heritage Association at Gustavus (which he did), and also gave us each a signed copy of his newly published book, Whatever Became of Sin and Grace. Pastor Wiberg presented Pastor Berg with his own fine book, Singing the Story, recently published by Pietisten. Since then Rev. Berg has a new book, Words of Hope for All Times.

Evangeline Peterson lifted our spirits as well that same morning. She worked for a Covenant school for decades and remembers all her students and her colleagues of the era by name. The joy we felt being with her was a treat. My wife Sandy and I met Miss Peterson at a Sunday morning service in the Augustana Home Chapel months ago. Chaplain Amy placed Evangeline’s wheel chair next to Sandy. Attending these Lutheran worship services and receiving the care of Augustana Home is another instance of hanging out with Lutherans. During our pre-service conversation, Miss Peterson told us that she taught at Minnehaha Academy. At 99, she is retired.

“Do you know,” I asked her, “Art Anderson? Art Mampel? Bruce Carlson?” Names familiar to Pietisten readers. And on and on. Evangeline knew each person I mentioned and remembered them affectionately. It was quickly evident that teaching and guiding high school girls and boys was her calling. My main mission that morning in June with Glen was to give Miss Peterson a recording of Art Mampel, Pietisten’s Poet Laureate, reading some of his poems. Evangeline can’t see enough to read so a recording was the ticket. She remembered Art fondly (but had not anticipated he would become a poet!) We listened to poems from his book Winter Wheat. Evangeline was delighted. She was equally delighted when Pastor Glen Wiberg pulled the autoharp from its black case, and began to play and sing. Glen and I left the Augustana Home that morning with light and happy hearts having been blessed by our elders.

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

See all articles by Phil Johnson